NEW YORK -- Manny Pina's teammates hoot and holler when they hear the times -- a not-uncommon reaction when the Statcast™ data finds its way into a Major League clubhouse. These numbers are revealed in the particular baseball parlance reserved for "pop times" -- in quick succession, like they're being rattled off as zip codes or someone's height.
"Pudge Rodriguez was 1.71," Brewers utility man Hernan Perez said. "1-7-1. What's Manny?"
Pina is pretty close to Pudge, who's pretty much the player every catcher would love to be compared to. Pina's proximity to a man who who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer may be hard to believe, even for the teammates and coaches of the journeyman rookie getting his first legit big league chance this year at age 29. But it's true, at least in a small sample.
Many factors go into whether an attempting basestealer is out or safe. But how quickly the catcher gets the ball down to second -- his "pop time" -- plays a major part in it. Pina's throws have been good. Really good. There was the 1.74-second pea Pina used to nab Matt Carpenter on April 21 -- the quickest to second tracked by Statcast™ this season. The 1.77-second peg he made on April 12 against the Blue Jays ranks third. He also threw out the ultra-speedy Billy Hamilton on April 16.
In all, the Brewers catcher owns five of the seven quickest pop times tracked by Statcast™ this season. All of which allows one to mention the previously little-known Pina's name next to a player who was revered in his heyday for being the only catcher to consistently throw in the 1.7-second range.
Pop times and pitcher's times to the plate have long been measured by Major League clubs, but for so long they were tracked with rudimentary tools like stopwatches, which are prone to human variance. Catchers were long judged publicly based on numbers like caught-stealing percentage, which they couldn't completely control.
Now we have Statcast™ to more precisely break down the tiny aspects of baseball that make huge differences. With pop times, the tiny difference between 2.00 seconds and 1.80 seconds is the huge gap between average and elite, an outfield-sized moat between sometimes safe and virtually always out. Anything faster than 1.80 is rarified air, reserved, at least anecdotally, for all-time greats like Pudge -- and occasionally Yadier Molina.
Statcast™ tracked nine throws of 1.80 or quicker this season. Five came from Pina. Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, the Padres' Austin Hedges and Angels backstop Martin Maldonado -- whom Pina backed up last season in Milwaukee -- own the others.
"I feel proud," Pina said, when informed of his status among the game's elite throwers. "This reminds me how far I've come from where I was six or seven years ago in the Minor Leagues."
Pina grew up playing shortstop outside Barquisimeto, Venezuela. The Rangers signed him as a 17-year-old in 2004, but only after scout Manny Batista (who now heads Milwaukee's international scouting department) convinced Pina to switch to catching.
"I was too slow for a shortstop. My trainer told me to try catching. At first I said, 'No chance,'" Pina said. "I didn't want to be in full gear and be hit by pitches … but when the scout said he wanted to see me catch, I listened."
Pina learned how to catch entirely as a professional. Passed balls plagued him early on and sent him to the batting cage for 6:30 a.m. receiving sessions with a high-velocity pitching machine. Slowly, he learned to catch, then frame, then call a game, then manage a staff -- the nuances of the position methodically rounding into form. But it took awhile.
Other than playing five games with Kansas City between 2011-12, Pina spent 12 full seasons in the Minors. He was released twice and traded three times. This year, he earned a spot on Milwaukee's Opening Day roster, and he's teamed with Jett Bandy to form one of baseball's most productive catching tandems. Defense is admittedly Pina's focus, but he's also hitting .301/.343/.462 over 28 games.
"He's a late bloomer," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "He's gotten the ball down there in a hurry a couple times, balls you don't think he even had a chance on."
The Brewers prioritize handling pitchers, receiving and blocking over throwing, and they consider arm strength the least important measure of a catcher's talent.
"Accuracy is more important than time," said Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy, who oversees the catchers. "Getting a smooth transfer, a good grip and letting the ball go accurately helps Manny more than anything."
Pina's average velocity on throws to second is 81.8 mph -- good for fifth in baseball, but significantly slower than Maldonado's MLB-best 84.9 mph. As for the ceiling of potential catcher arm strength, consider Padres catcher/pitcher Christian Bethancourt, who averaged 89.5 mph on competitive throws last season.
"My footwork is more important than my arm. If I don't have good footwork, my arm doesn't mean anything," Pina said. "If my lower body is in good position to throw, I have a better chance of throwing the ball right to the base."